Mystery plagues small Indiana town after fire that killed four children

FLORA (USA TODAY) – Gaylin Rose stood outside her home, dressed in a nightgown, frantically yelling to her children. Coming from inside the burning home were the desperate screams of four little girls.

A neighbor, Jeff Cook, rushed out of his home. He saw the flames shooting through his neighbors’ home. And then, through the fog of smoke, he saw Rose.

“I failed. I failed,” she told him. “I couldn’t get my babies.”

Sobbing, Rose lamented to Cook that, as much as she had tried, the power of the black smoke had beaten her back from her girls’ bedrooms. Others tried, too. But the flames engulfed the Flora home so rapidly it looked hopeless from the start.

Soon, the screams subsided.

From a distance, a neighbor watched firefighters bring the girls' bodies out on stretchers. Keyana Davis, 11; Keyara Phillips, 9; Kerriele McDonald, 7; and Kionnie Welch, 5, died in the early morning hours of Nov. 21, a Monday, in their home.

And more than seven months later, the people in Flora, a town with 2,000 that is barely larger than one square mile, are mired in grief, fear and suspicion, still wondering if the fire was intentionally set.

Rumors fly freely with few facts available to counter them.

Reminders of the fire linger on the quiet Flora street.

The residence, a duplex with two apartments, stands on a corner just steps from Flora’s downtown. The home is blackened by soot and smoke, but children’s toys are strewn across the porch, untouched by the blaze. Even now, gusts of wind carry the burned, acrid smell of the home across the neighborhood.

And the screams of the little girls still haunt those who remain.

The last weekend

After years of setbacks, Tracie Rose and his family were building a life in Flora.

Rose, the grandfather of the girls, went to prison for drug crimes when his daughter, Gaylin, was 12. In 2011, he came back into her life, and into the lives of his grandchildren, after he was released from prison and became sober.

He moved to Flora when his aunt found him work there. Gaylin Rose, 29, at times struggled as a single mother, her father said. She eventually followed him to Flora from Missouri to be close to family.

Through her father, Gaylin Rose said she was not prepared to talk about the loss of her daughters for this story.

She and her daughters lived with her father for eight months, Tracie Rose said, until Gaylin secured her own apartment with more space.

The apartment — the first floor of the duplex that burned — had a large front porch on a tree-lined street. The girls were often playing with each other outside, neighbors said.

They were friendly and polite, often saying hello to those that lived nearby.

"They played with my dog," recalled Chasity Fox, a neighbor. "They were the first ones that got her to fetch. She never fetched before."

The Friday before the fire, Tracie Rose was supposed to be packing for a trip to Tennessee. He was beset with a feeling that he didn't want to go out of town, though he wasn't sure why.

Rose lives in a small, white house just blocks from where his daughter and granddaughters lived.

The girls had a busy weekend ahead of them. They had a cheerleading competition on Saturday. Then, on Sunday, Keyana, the oldest, had a basketball game.

Keyana loved basketball, and Rose predicted she would have been a star in high school. He often went to her games, cheering her on from the sidelines.

On Sunday night, Rose got on the phone from Tennessee with his daughter, Gaylin, during Keyana's game.

"What's she doing now?" Rose asked his daughter, who gave a play-by-play of the game.

Hours later, he was awakened by a call. It was Gaylin. She said his granddaughters had been killed.

"My girls was everything," Rose recently recalled in an interview with IndyStar, breaking down down in tears.

In his grief, he recalled the last time he saw his granddaughters.

It was the Friday before the fire, and he was preparing to leave town the next day. The girls, who called him "Paw Paw" had come to help him pack for the trip.

They asked him not to go.

"It was strange," Rose said. "They didn't want me to leave."

Mystery engulfs a small town

The day after the fire, the Department of Homeland Security in a statement said the cause of the blaze was still undetermined, but it may have started in the kitchen of the lower unit, where Gaylin Rose's family lived, possibly behind the refrigerator.

Two months later, the department released information that rocked the small town: Investigators found "accelerants" in the structure and ruled it an arson fire.

Investigators declined to talk more about the investigation, and would not offer more details about the type of accelerants found. Officials have not released information about any suspects. They say they are no longer speaking publicly about the case. It remains under investigation.

"It seems like it's a cold case already," said Fox, the neighbor.

The uncertainty has led to a creeping anxiety in the town — particularly when paired with another recent tragedy suffered in Carroll County. Just eight miles from Flora, Liberty German and Abigail Williams were killed in Delphi in February, another unsolved killing that has resulted in unease and suspicion.

Flora has commemorated the six girls with a bench engraved with each girls' name and age. Flowers lay on the seat.

Eve Gipson, a Flora resident, put her face in her hands and cried when she spoke about the girls. 

"They can't let that go," Gipson said, speaking about the investigation, and the lack of recent news. "They were four innocent little girls."

Gipson said people in town have speculated on who might have set the fire, including wondering if any family members could have done it.

Such talk angers Fox. She watched the girls' mother scream in pain, powerless to save her children.

"Everybody wants to point the finger at someone else," Fox said. "It really hurts."

A recent local news report offered a twist that, for some, raised questions about whether the fire was actually intentionally set.

WTHR-TV in June reported that arson investigator Dennis Randle resigned after a private investigator who was consulting on the case questioned whether the state hastily reached its conclusion about arson.

In a letter to the Indiana Department of Homeland Security and Indiana Fire Marshal James Greeson posted by WTHR, the consultant, whose name is redacted, writes that the state's conclusions are "NOT CORRECT, and completely based on speculation, NOT evidence."

Tracie Rose believes the fire was an accident, and is upset about the rumors swirling around town. He says the family has no enemies in Flora.

"I don't like talkers," Rose said.

An IDHS spokesperson confirmed that Randle resigned, but declined to answer further questions, referring them to Indiana State Police. IndyStar filed a public records request for the letter from the private investigator, as well as all related correspondence. Officials have acknowledged the request and told IndyStar it is under review.

ISP, though, stands by the conclusion that the fire was intentionally set, said Capt. Dave Bursten.

Carroll County Prosecutor Robert Ives also said he believes the fire was intentional based on his knowledge of the investigation.

"These are horrible, terrible tragedies," Ives said, speaking about the killings in Delphi and Flora. "This is the worst time I can ever remember in Carroll County."

Now, the residents of Flora are left to wonder whether there is a killer in their midst.

"This used to be a very open and friendly community," Cook said. "The town is still open ... we're just nervous."

A shared grief

The day after the fire, Fox's husband had to call off work. Her brother became sick. Fox herself had trouble breathing.

The 27-year-old woman who lives just steps from the home grows tearful when she thinks about what Gaylin Rose is going through. But she also sees the scars the fire left on the neighborhood.

"To hear the girls screaming for their mom," Fox said, "it's the most devastating thing anyone can hear."

Fox and her husband stepped out of their apartment the night of the fire to look at what they first thought was a strange, dense fog. They quickly realized it was smoke. Then, the flames engulfed the home.

They too, felt powerless. Fox said her brother considered running into the home to help, but they had watched emergency personnel try to enter, only to be forced back out.

That night, Tracie Rose was stuck in Tennessee, but stayed on the phone with his daughter for as long as he could.

Now, his home is still cluttered with his granddaughters' toys, signs of their presence everywhere. Rose keeps their school pictures with him in his car. He just experienced the first Fourth of July holiday without the girls.

"The girls," he said, his voice shaking. "They was my heart."

How to help:

Authorities are asking the community for help solving the case by calling the Indiana State Arson Hotline at 1-800-382-4628. Callers can remain anonymous.

Police are also offering a reward of up to $5,000 for information that leads to an arrest. Citizens can donate to the reward fund by sending a check to the Indiana Department of Homeland Security at 302 W. Washington Street Room E208, Indianapolis, IN, 46204. To ensure the donation goes to the appropriate account, the memo line should read “Flora Fire Reward.” 

INDYSTAR.com


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